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Risky investigation, stalled agenda — Trump's in trouble, so here's his strategy

Hosts of Southern California’s “Morning Answer” radio show were wrapping up a two-hour live broadcast from a white tent just outside the West Wing this week and marveling at their access to Cabinet secretaries and prominent administration figures.

“If you’re a Trumpkin,” host Brian Whitman told his listeners on AM 870, “this is like fantasy camp.”

The White House’s daylong hospitality for Salem Radio Network, a nationwide chain of Christian and conservative stations, underscored President Trump’s continued courtship of — and increased dependence on — core supporters as he confronts a stalled agenda and increasingly perilous investigations into whether his campaign colluded with Russia and he subsequently sought to obstruct the inquiries.

The play-to-the-base strategy empowers those advisors and conservative media pushing a more nationalist, populist and evangelical agenda for Trump.

Among the latest examples was his Twitter announcement Wednesday, which surprised even the Pentagon, that he would block transgender people from military service despite his prior promises “to fight” for LGBTQ rights. That move followed a Tuesday evening campaign-style rally in Youngstown, Ohio, where Trump reprised his most popular attacks on elites, Democrats and recalcitrant Republicans.

All presidents pay special attention to their supporters, but the imperative grows more urgent when they face trouble. President Clinton similarly played to Democrats’ liberal base for self-preservation during his impeachment trial in the late 1990s, though all the while he maintained channels to congressional Republicans.

Trump, who describes politics as a transactional game of winning or losing, seems to have no use for the usual rhetoric or actions intended to soften partisan lines between elections. He has not made a concerted effort to broaden his appeal. Now, with low popularity ratings among the general public, he is banking all the more on his political base. Those supporters to date have shown little sign of wavering.

“There’s a large bloc of people, including sophisticated people, who are just so sick of Washington, who will overlook almost anything as long as he shapes it up,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump confidant.

Yet if Trump isn’t taking his supporters for granted, neither is he always pleasing them.

For a week, Trump has tested those bonds by relentlessly criticizing Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, a favorite of many conservatives for his hard-line views on immigration and crime. That has prompted backlash not only from Republican senators who served with Sessions when he represented Alabama, but also from such media loyalists as Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart News.

Mostly the base remains stalwart, however, while even some of Trump’s closest advisors, including Gingrich, worry that the president could be squandering an opportunity to expand his support, and with it his ability to leave a larger policy imprint.

“He’s being advised that he needs to keep [his base] at all costs,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of the conservative Newsmax Media and a longtime friend of Trump. “I think that advice is not particularly good.”

Ruddy believes the base’s fealty gives Trump latitude to reach beyond his comfort zone — to seek more centrist policies on taxes, education and infrastructure, for example — and broaden his support.

Those close to Trump say he has a rosier view of his popularity than reflected in most polls, which show his approval just under 40%, in part because his election shattered conventional wisdom.

“He thinks that if he’s at 40%, he’s actually closer to 50%,” Gingrich said.

Trump’s self-regard is reinforced by flattering postmortems he receives from White House staff on how his public events played in the media. The printed packets include tweets and “top chyrons” on cable news, leading off with those from Fox News that capture, without challenge, his statements about his success.

Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s incoming communications director, gave his first interview after Trump chose him to Breitbart News’ radio show, discussing the importance of getting the message to “the heartland.”

“We have enough outlets, whether it’s Breitbart, the president’s social media feed, all of the different apparatus that we have, where people will allow us to deliver our message to the American people unfiltered,” he said.

Those in Trump’s inner circle say that his attention to the voters he believes put him in office is conscious and that he views his governance as a series of promises kept. One senior advisor reeled off a number of issues: pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, deregulating energy production and other businesses, cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities, pushing for higher penalties against criminals who reenter the country illegally.

The advisor also cited the importance of showcasing the president’s meetings with heads of state and his red-carpet treatment on foreign trips: Supporters see those as signs of success, because many believe Trump has been unfairly depicted as an outcast on the world stage.

The aide also pointed to issues that appeal to evangelical Christians, such as restrictions on foreign aid to groups that provide abortions. That emphasis represents a slight shift. Trump downplayed religious and social issues in his campaign and still won about 80% of evangelicals’ support.

The president’s increased attention to religious and cultural issues suggests he might suspect that he cannot take their support for granted. Hours after announcing the transgender decision, Trump tweeted in all caps: “IN AMERICA WE DON’T WORSHIP GOVERNMENT - WE WORSHIP GOD!”

Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin, noted another area of potential concern for Trump: faltering support from wealthier, educated suburbanites who typically vote Republican but were less enthusiastic about Trump in the election.

Franklin said the president’s disapproval ratings outweigh his approval marks in two suburban counties around Milwaukee, which he has visited more than once since the election. Franklin added that Trump has been able to mitigate opposition in the state with strong support from rural voters and those in Green Bay, the type of important swing area that helped the president form his winning national coalition.

Polls nationally show Trump retaining over 80% support from Republicans, while about 10% of Democrats approve of him. His low approval ratings among independents are what have kept his overall popularity lower than that of any modern first-year president.

Trump’s popularity with large majorities of Republicans gives him some protection as the Russia investigation begins to touch family members and close aides. But his threats against Republicans who cross him on policy are generally proving ineffective, something Trump complained about over the weekend.

“It’s very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their President,” he tweeted Saturday.

That could be because polls show those who “strongly disapprove” of Trump outnumber those who “strongly approve.” Also, many GOP lawmakers distanced themselves from Trump before last year’s election, when they expected him to lose, and thus feel less pressure to fall in line now.

Trump’s aides have long said that encouraging his love affair with his voters and stoking the adulation of crowds at his rallies goes beyond political necessity: It keeps his spirits up in tough times.

This week he even turned an address to a national Boy Scouts Jamboree in West Virginia into a political rally, encouraging boos for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, though that upset many people inside and outside the traditionally nonpartisan Scouting community. The next night, he held forth at the Youngstown rally, calling a self-described lifelong Democrat named Geno DiFabio to the stage. Trump had seen DiFabio on “Fox and Friends,” where he described his passion for Trump.

DiFabio, wearing a large T-shirt that said “Trump Won: Deal with it,” gave Trump a bear hug and praised him for “keeping the promises” he had made.

Then he counseled the president, “I would tell the Republicans and the Democrats, ‘Look, I am going to go do my rallies. You got the agenda. Those people are voting for me and mine.’ ”

The crowd roared. Trump nodded, smiled and patted DiFabio on the shoulder.

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

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